Camping, 2 Decades Later: Let the Good Times Roll

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It was 1994 the first time my kids and I went camping at Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad. It was a significant year. I’d graduated from college – 20 years after high school – and I’d bought a house.

I was also recently divorced after 16 years of marriage to my high school sweetheart. I wanted to prove to my kids – and myself – that I could do something that was outside of my traditional mom role. For me, that something was camping. I’d always loved the idea of tent-camping, though I was a bit intimidated by it. But I supposed that camping would become easier with time and practice.

That summer of ’94, I had a general idea of what camping entailed. I knew we’d need shelter, an ice chest, matches, wood for the campfire, sleeping bags, clothes, Hershey bars, marshmallows, graham crackers and cooking supplies.

For this trip, I’d bought a two-room tent at Shopko that could have housed an entire scout troop. Weeks before our trip, the kids and I practiced pitching the tent in our driveway, just so we’d know what to do when the real camping day arrived. I’d never been a Girl Scout, but if I did say so myself, I was sure thinking like one.

The day we left for the coast, we had everything crammed inside our 1984 yellow Volvo station wagon. The Volvo was new to me, too. Post-divorce I’d sold my nearly new gray minivan for a down payment on the house, and set aside $1,800 to buy the adorably funky Volvo. The kids and I used rope — and, for good measure, Bungee cords — to tether a few dozen pieces of firewood to the car’s luggage rack. For extra insurance, we topped it with a blue tarp, and wrapped more rope around that.

As we drove out of our neighborhood, I assumed that folks who openly stared were marveling at how well-prepared we looked, and how much fun we’d have, when in fact, “Grapes of Wrath” was probably closer to what they were actually thinking.

This was our Volvo’s first trip to the coast, too, and we soon discovered that our car liked to take its time going up hills, sometimes for a long while before we could pull over and let zippier cars pass. This caused some drivers to wave at us with single digits extended high in the air out their open windows as they zoomed by. So friendly!

As I drove, I imagined  how we’d set up camp, make dinner and get a good night’s sleep. For breakfast we’d make pancakes and bacon over the campfire, followed by a day on the beach, looking for agates. Oh, the adventures we’d have. The memories we’d create.

Joe and his Sandmom

We arrived at Patrick’s Point with enough daylight to erect the tent and start a campfire. This was my first campfire, but luckily I’d brought enough newspaper and lighter fluid that it did the trick in no time – WHOOSH! – and we had an impressively roaring fire that July evening, perfect for cooking dinner and making S’mores for dessert.

I had never cooked over a campfire, either, but I figured it was like one big, open gas-range cook top.  I was shocked how quickly food charred, and how all the food had one – make that two – flavors: smoke and Kingston lighter fluid. Even so, we cooked and ate hot dogs and vegetables, the latter to accommodate my teenage daughter’s recent conversion to veganism.

In those days, Patrick’s Point campers were given whichever sites were available when people rolled in to claim their reservations. But because we’d arrived rather late in the day, one of the only sites left was next door to the restrooms and showers, which was also about the farthest point from the ocean. Oh well. We had two more whole days to visit the ocean up close.

The kids and I were excited to sleep our first night in our new tent inside our new sleeping bags. My, how dark it was inside that tent at night. No street lights. No nasty light pollution. Pure, blessed, deep black.

A wide zipper divided the two “rooms” so Josh and Joe could share one room, and Sarah and I could have the other. Almost like a little house in the woods. So charming. So cozy. We wanted for nothing.

I was mom. See me camp.

Joe and his mom at Patrick’s Point.

There’s a guttural, unmistakable sound people make when they’re on the verge of vomiting. However, with kids of any age, that sound usually accompanies a call for a parent. Typically, that sound comes from a small child standing by the edge of the parent’s bed at 3 a.m., tugging at an adult arm to awaken them. Most often, by then it’s too late to do anything except duck, cover and get out of the line of fire. After that, it’s a night of Pine Sol and a churning washing machine.

As it turns out, vomiting at home and vomiting while camping are amazingly similar.

Mom? Within the charcoal blackness of our tent I heard Sarah call for me in that queasy tone that can only mean one thing.

My daughter, who’d gamely eaten all those horribly smoky vegetables, and maybe suffered a touch of car sickness over Buckhorn Summit, became a projectile fountain that would not stop. I could hear the retching. I could feel and smell the sour spray. I could not find my flashlight for what seemed an eternity.

One definition of Hell: trapped inside a dark tent, pitched on a decline, with three kids – one of whom is vomiting – while the other two are screaming in confusion and disgust.

Consequently, our first full day of camping did not start with pancakes over a campfire. Nor did we spend our first day looking for agates. Instead, we spent our first day at Patrick’s Point with my youngest child staying behind at camp with his older sister, still green around the gills. Meanwhile, my middle child and I found a laundromat in Trinidad where we washed and dried nearly every fabric item we’d brought with us.

By the next day my daughter was feeling better.We eventually did have pancakes and S’mores, and we hunted for agates.

Sarah and Joe hunt for agates.

The next year the kids and I returned to Trinidad, but without the tent. This time I rented a rustic little cabin that had a faux Tyrolean look.

But glory hallelujah the cabin had electricity, beds, a bathroom, and, best of all, a kitchen with a stove. There were no campfires to ignite. No tents to pitch. Been there. Done that. Learned some lessons.

The next time I camped at Patrick’s Point was 1998, in my beloved tent trailer, a gift from my then-husband for my 42nd birthday (it’s what I’d always wanted). We celebrated our first anniversary in that tent trailer, with its canvas sides and the little lantern we hung from a ceiling hook, a romantic touch to commemorate a special occasion.

As with the first camping trip, I learned something on this trip, too. The lesson from the camping trip of 1998 dawned upon me as my husband and I walked in the dark to the bathrooms late the second night. We glanced back to admire our adorable tent trailer, a lovely retreat beneath the redwoods. That’s when we noticed that thanks to the lantern’s glow inside the canvas enclosure, it produced the most accurate, crisp silhouettes of every single shape inside the trailer: the hanging metal basket that held bananas and apples, the bottle of Champagne, the two pillows on our bed, the coffee pot, a baseball cap on the counter, a pair of binoculars. Every. Thing. Everything!

Come morning, we did the brave thing and remained at the camp site for another day, though we avoided eye contact with the other campers.

Camping is on my mind today because I have reservations at Patrick’s Point for a three-day getaway later this summer

I am so excited about this trip, because as part of our birthday celebration, my twin and I are sharing the camp site with some women friends I’ve known for between 20 to 30 years. Credit goes to friend Canda for forming our initial, informal group those many years ago, made up of about two dozen women who met at each other’s homes or restaurants where we ate, drank and caught up with each other’s lives. We also talked about men a lot.

Over the years many of the women lost interest in the group, dropped out or moved away. We die hards became the smaller, core group. We were sounding boards and shoulders for each other during child-rearing challenges, divorces, marriages, teenagers, hot flashes, family drama, retirements, dating, and the loss of loved ones, jobs, youth and elasticity. Breast cancer took two friends, and it continues to threaten one dear member of our group.

It’s this collection of women – now just six of us – who will camp together at Patrick’s Point this summer. We will sleep in tents on inflatable mattresses.

This time, I won’t get too far ahead of myself. No big plans. No expectations beyond the proximity to the ocean, some wine, chocolate, books, great meals, a portable gas burner, friends, and lots of relaxation, long walks and conversations. We’re a group of talkers, and I already pity the campers who’ll flank our camp site.

Overall, my goals are simple: get there, set up camp, and let the good times roll.

Hopefully, on level ground.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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30 Responses

  1. Deb Deb says:

    Great article! I wish you a lovely camping trip, and new memories to cherish (hopefully without any more ‘camping lessons’, just loads of fun!).

  2. Avatar trek says:

    A really nice hike while at the harbor in Trinidad is the Trinidad Head Trail. Make pizza in the frying pan while sipping wine you won’t regret it.

    • Good trail tip. Thank you. And oh my gosh, what a great idea to make pizza in a frying pan (I’ll bet cast iron is the best.)

      • Avatar trek says:

        Cast iron or Teflon both work well, must have good lids.
        In skillet mix 1 cup flour, 3/4 cup warm water, tsp dry yeast, tsp salt. Will look like thick pancake mix, add sauce and then toppings of choice.
        Cook over med heat for about 10 minutes w/ lid on. Done when crust is brown on btm. (Take a peak)
        If you want a thicker crust use self rising floor.

        You will make this over and over again!

  3. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    As much as I will hate it because I’ll be stuck HERE, I sincerely hope that it is 112 degrees in Redding on your camping week-end so you guys can really feel smug (among other things) while you are enjoying the coolness . .. and in more than just temperature . .. of Patrick’s Point. I think you’re going to be a camping Goldilocks. You tried it au natural with kids ….too traumatic. You tried it in a cabin …. too removed. You tried it in a tent trailer …. still traumatic. Now you are trying it with soul sisters, and I just betcha you’ll find it’s JUUUUUST RIGHT!!!

  4. A group of about eight friends (plus a couple of long-term spouses), most of whom initially got together on the playground at Manzanita and Sequoia, have formed a precious knot that seems to grow tighter every year. We gather from around the west for a weekend of laughing and eating and love, and FB keeps us right across the cyber-table from each other the rest of the year. Looking [way] back, I wish I had been brave enough to camp with my kids, but your descriptions remind me how those trips only got easy years later, long after the fact.

    • Jenny, your comment is so poetic (friendship knot that grew tighter …. and how FB keeps you and your friends across the cyber-table from each other). Thanks for sharing.

  5. Randall R. Smith Randall R. Smith says:

    Almost a lifetime encapsulated in three adventures a few miles from home. We will be here trying with limited water to save some garden treasures and likewise remembering a hike or two in the wild. Thanks for sharing and Happy Birthday coming soon.

  6. Avatar Shelly Shively says:

    Great memories, Doni! I’m looking forward to our bday beach trip with you & the ladies: it’s sure to be an adventure!

  7. Avatar Michelle says:

    Dear Doni,

    We are the Camp Sisters. We started humbly camping together on a creek in a campground called Madrone 25 years ago. Our kids- sometimes numbering 15 + and an equivalent number of dogs, but no husbands! If there was an adventure or a calamity to be had, we suffered it. One that comes to mind is the time sister Brooke’s inflatable queen size air mattress started exploding internally air cell by air cell, until it took on a most unusual form resembling a massive tumor. Word to the wise- do not over inflate. We had dog fights, bug bites, and more than one emergency room treatment! We were there the day Redding was the hottest day on the planet- with a foreign exchange student from Japan and a few times it rained so hard the tarps turned into waterfalls. Enjoy the trip, look on every moment as an experience. And laugh. They are al memories. We are older, wiser, and childless and still enjoying escapades together. However our comfort levels have escalated as we are sitting here together in a historic lovely 4 story home on the Freedom Trail in Boston laughing about all the silly memories your article brought us to recall. Enjoy…
    Michelle, Brooke, Ann, and Sharon

    • I love the name of your group: “The Camp Sisters:. Michelle, Brooke, Ann, and Sharon, our group could probably learn a thing or two about camping from your group.

      So much wisdom. Thank you!

  8. Avatar Gayle says:

    Awwww… your little cabin is where I stayed on my honeymoon in 1974! Love tent camping and go every chance I get. Most people work too hard at camping. The key is don’t take so much stuff and relax!

  9. Avatar Janel says:

    FUN article. Felt like I was with you each trip … experiencing
    camping and learning so many lessons. SMOOCH! Enjoy this year’s trip.

  10. Avatar Ginny says:

    You have a wonderful trip. Enjoy to the fullest.

    God bless all of you!

  11. Avatar Chris B. says:

    When I was 6 and we lived in San Francisco, we used to go camping at Trinity Lake in the early 1970s. We moved up to Weavreville (near the lake) when I was 9. We skipped camping while I was a teen, but started again camping at the same campground when I was in my early 20s with my mom and cousin (just us girls) and I’ve been camping ever since.

    I introduced camping to my Philadelphia-raised husband and later, our two children. Babies sleep GREAT in the woods! My kids grew up swimming in the lake for hours at a time, going on bear hunts (to see if we could find markings and we always did), playing with fire. It’s about the only time of year they don’t mourn over missed video game time.

    A week after my husband died unexpectedly, I took my 6 and 8 year old boys camping at that same campground. Now 5 years+ later, we still go every summer. I sometimes think about skipping it (so much work, the lake’s so low), but naw, come July I break down and say it’s happening. We usually end up taking several of the kids’ friends and our old Lewiston friends join us too. Camping is good.

    I envy you hanging out with your good friends. You shall have the most marvelous of times. Unfortunately, I probably won’t go camping this year. (Yeah, yeah, that’s a fib – we’ll be going….)

    • Oh, Chris, your comment almost deserves its own column. So moving.

      I remember you and your family’s life when I interviewed your husband for his restaurant opening. Then – poof – he was gone.

      You are an amazing mom to your sons, and I admire you for hanging in there to maintain those family traditions. All we can home is that when our kids grow up, they’ll remember.

      Check back with us after your trip with the boys. 😉

      You are correct. Camping is good!

  12. Avatar Frank Tona says:

    Great Photos!
    make more photographic memories and share them !

  13. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    At last year’s Saturday Market, you were demonstrating making pasta with your pasta machine. You mentioned that you’ve even taken it camping since no electricity is required. My brother-in-law is a fishing guide in Cody, Wyoming, and I told him that story. His reaction? “Is she married?” I know that a good way to meet people — especially the opposite sex — is through dog walking, but who would have thought that a pasta machine could be cupid.

    • Thanks, Frank. I know your photo philosophy. 🙂

    • It’s true. The times I’ve camped I’ve brought my pasta machine. No need for electricity. Just boiling water.

      A few times people have actually wandered over and said they wished I had a campsite restaurant. (Wouldn’t THAT be cool?)

      But I’ve never met an eligible bachelor that way. Maybe I should bring my pasta machine along on our trip. Four out of the six of us are single.

  14. Avatar david kerr says:

    After a hard day on the trail, many campers cook packaged food in foil pouches. I like to cook stir fries using lots of fresh ingredients. It is entertaining to watch a bachelor cook. The more complex and time consuming the better. What else are you going to do in the evening?

    Cooking in the woodstove in winter is good practice for camping. Covered skillet serves as a dutch oven. There are camping and dutch oven cookbooks.

    • The foil pouches are a good idea. I’ll do a search for some recipes. Thank you!

      • Avatar EasternCounty says:

        We cooked foil pouches on many a Girl Scout trip. Ours were fairly Spartan — potatoes, carrots, salt, and pepper — to accompany a roasted weenie. My adult taste would add onion and other firm vegetables like parsnips, perhaps turnips, sweet potatoes, mostly what you like roasted. Add some olive oil, garlic powder, put it in two layers of foil, fold up the edges, and when done, the packet serves as its own dish. Depending on how long your trip is going to be, you might want to chunk up the vegetables before going so that you’re not hauling so many whole vegetables. Have a great time.